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A Collapse of Trust: Reconceptualizing the Crisis of Historicism

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This essay redefines the crisis of historicism as a collapse of trust. Following Friedrich Jaeger, it suggests that this crisis should be understood, not as a crisis caused by historicist methods, but as a crisis faced by the classical historicist tradition of Ranke. The "nihilism" and "moral relativism" feared by Troeltsch's generation did not primarily refer to the view that moral universals did not exist; rather, they expressed that the historical justification of bildungsbürgerliche values offered by classical historicism did no longer work. In Niklas Luhmann's vocabulary, this is to say that moral values could no longer be trusted on historical grounds. But when the "reduction of complexity" offered by classical historicism collapsed, Troeltsch's generation faced a justification problem: what other modes of justification, if any at all, were available in a time of increasing secularization and growing feelings of discontinuity with the past? In identifying the crisis of historicism with this moral justification problem, this essay helps explain why such debts of despair could be reached in the early-twentieth-century disputes over historicism.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Leiden University, The Netherlands

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